WNYC’s homemade sensors provide new tools for detecting stories

By Andrew Lapin

When Online News Association conference-goers filed into a Marriott auditorium in Atlanta Oct. 19 and took their seats for a session on new journalism technologies, they were unaware that they were being monitored.

To demonstrate the data-collection capabilities of cheap, easily assembled computer-circuit parts, the panel of technology and journalism researchers had placed sensors beneath some chairs in the auditorium. A map of the room projected on a screen displayed floating dots over several of the seats.

(Photo: John Keefe/WNYC)

So easy a child can do it? Kaia Keefe, daughter of WNYC’s data news chief John Keefe, helped her dad build a cicada tracker. (Photo: John Keefe/WNYC)

“Somebody in the stage left area is either sending or receiving text messages,” said panelist and Brown University engineer Kipp Bradford, pointing to a purple dot on the screen.

Earlier that day, Guardian U.S. Editor-in-Chief Janine Gibson warned attendees about the dangers of constant government surveillance to their profession. By contrast, the self-proclaimed data geeks on the sensor panel, which included John Keefe of New York’s WNYC, used sensors to highlight the benefits of harvesting readily available information: the ability to turn real-world data into stories with help from cheap available technology. Their audience was amused.

As advanced technology has become more widely available during the past decade, usage of wireless sensors has moved away from “the domain of people who have had 20 years of experience with engineering,” Bradford said.

WNYC, where Keefe works as senior editor for data news and journalism technology, is among the media outlets that are working to extend that domain to include members of their audiences, tapping into communities of independent gadget builders who are part of the so-called “maker movement.” Using crowdsourcing techniques, journalists are recruiting makers and casual audiences alike to build sensors, record data and share them in service of a larger story.

Matthew Waite, head of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a leading proponent of sensor journalism, has been working in data journalism since the 1990s, when the profession was more commonly known as “computer-assisted reporting.” He became interested in gathering his own data because he disliked relying on government records.

“Every time you do that, you’re taking on certain assumptions and you’re taking on certain flaws,” Waite told Current. “And those can range from [the fact that] the data wasn’t collected for the purpose that you intend to use it for to pure incompetence.”

One early breakthrough for sensor journalism came during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when the BBC and the Associated Press used sensors to measure air quality. Their data demonstrated that the city’s atmosphere was far more polluted than the Chinese government claimed.

“Data starts in the real world; it starts in the physical world. It doesn’t just spring into being on a spreadsheet,” said Julie Steele, an editor at technology publication O’Reilly Media, at the ONA panel. “Sensors [are] a good way to meet those different needs.”

Information from insects

Keefe, who has enjoyed making circuitry since childhood, is using sensors to spearhead WNYC investigations in fields ranging from environmental science and personal health to entomology.

He builds his sensors with the help of Arduino boards, small portable circuit computers programmed with open-source software.

Proponents of sensor journalism say that unlike scientific researchers, journalists need not clear the hurdle of peer review.

Keefe

Keefe

“There is a level that is ‘good enough’” for journalists, Waite said. “We’re not doing peer-reviewed science here. . . . Six significant digits of data is really pointless compared to ‘The body of water is polluted, and that’s bad.’”

WNYC first experimented with sensors to track cicadas: specifically, a brood of the insects along the Eastern Seaboard that rises from below ground every 17 years to reproduce. Their appearance, which occurred this year between April and June, depends on the temperature of soil eight inches underground. Once it reaches 64 degrees, the insects emerge.

Though many East Coast residents dreaded the noisy arrival of cicadas this spring, Keefe and WNYC v.p. of news Jim Schachter saw an opportunity to put sensor journalism to work. All the parts needed to build a cheap sensor capable of monitoring soil temperatures and transmitting data to an online database were available from RadioShack, they realized, and the sensor could be easily replicated. Keefe worked with the staff of WNYC’s Radiolab to ask listeners on the East Coast to build sensors and report temperatures.

More than 800 listeners joined the project, and some even offered suggestions for improving Keefe’s original $80 model. “This guy sent us a little note saying, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. I just made it for $16. I work a few blocks from you. You guys want to see this?’” Keefe said.

The data collected by Radiolab listeners turned out to be of use to biology professors working on a cicada study at the University of Connecticut.

Sensors collect all kinds of data and have the potential to be adopted by journalists for a wide range of applications. Keefe is considering reporting projects that would track New Yorkers’ sleep habits via wrist devices and monitor commutes by placing sensors on bikes.

But news organizations using sensors may encounter obstacles. At ONA, Keefe recalled his plan to track the temperature of New York’s subway system by planting unattended sensors the size of bottle caps in subway stations. But WNYC staff feared that passengers might misinterpret the sensors and vetoed the idea after Metropolitan Transit Authority officials declined to assist them in alerting riders to the purpose of the sensors, even though Keefe offered to identify them by stamping his phone number and WNYC’s logo on the devices.

“I’m not preaching that sensors are the end-all and be-all of the future of journalism,” Keefe said. “In fact, I don’t think that at all. But this stuff is cheap. There are people doing this in your community. And you have stories that you want to tell. Maybe for your particular story, your particular investigation, this would be a good solution.”

Keefe recommends that station-based journalists connect with maker communities in their areas and solicit their ideas for cheaply and efficiently producing workable crowdsourced data. Since some methods of collecting data, particularly those that monitor location and electronic activity, spark concerns about privacy, journalists should be mindful about how they report the data. For his proposed project on bike commutes, for example, the sensors will have to scramble GPS data a bit to avoid revealing where WNYC’s listeners live and work.

“This is just an experiment,” he said. “We want to show you what’s possible. We don’t want to be creepy about it.”

Audio of the ONA panel:

Correction: WNYC’s proposal to monitor temperatures in New York’s subway system involved placing sensors in stations, not on railcars, as reported in an earlier version of this story. Officials at the Metropolitan Transit Authority didn’t “veto” the idea, as reported. WNYC staff withdrew the proposal after the MTA declined to assist them in alerting subway riders about the purpose of the sensors.
This article was first published in Current, Nov. 4, 2013.
Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
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